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Wildfire smoke is bad for pets, too. Here's how to keep them safe

Last year's Canadian wildfires shrouded parts of New York City in smoke. (Troy Dunkley/Reuters via CNN Newsource) Last year's Canadian wildfires shrouded parts of New York City in smoke. (Troy Dunkley/Reuters via CNN Newsource)
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More than 100 fires are burning across Canada, with some wildfires forcing evacuations and affecting air quality in Canada and the northern tier of the United States — and experts have noted that pets could be at risk, too.

Dr. Gabrielle Fadl of the Bond Vet Clinic in New York City told CNN last year that her practice has had a “significant influx of calls” from concerned clients seeking guidance on how to protect their animals from the poor air quality outside. It also received a few calls from patients, particularly pregnant and older people, requesting to reschedule appointments.

“Exposure to polluted air can have a profound impact on our pets’ health, leading to respiratory issues, allergies, and even exacerbating existing conditions such as asthma,” Fadl said.

To ensure pets’ well-being, Fadl advised considering the following precautions.

Limit outdoor activities

Reduce the time your pets spend outdoors as much as possible, especially during periods of unhealthy air quality. Doing so can help minimize their exposure to harmful pollutants and allergens, Fadl said.

You also shouldn’t run with your dog outdoors, said Dr. Peter DeCarlo, an associate professor in the department of environmental health and engineering at Johns Hopkins University. “If you can, just walk a little bit more slowly so you’re not breathing as deeply,” he added. “That can help.”

Avoiding strenuous activity is important for pets as well since they can’t breathe as deeply as humans, said Dr. Jessica Bell, an assistant professor in the college of veterinary medicine at Washington State University. Animals also can experience difficulty breathing, asthma-like symptoms and bronchitis.

If you must take pets outside, do so when air quality is best, Bell said. “That might be early in the morning before the air quality changes with settling of moisture.”

New York City’s Emergency Management advised wiping your pet’s muzzle, feet and coat with a damp cloth after being outside.

Create a safe environment indoors

Even pets kept indoors can be affected by the air quality outside, Bell said, so make sure you have proper ventilation in your home. Keep the windows closed to prevent outdoor pollutants, such as fine particulate matter, from entering. These particles are the tiniest, yet most dangerous, of pollutants, and have been linked to health problems such as heart disease, asthma and other respiratory illnesses.

“A major difference between wildfires and, for example, a fire that you might burn in a backyard bonfire is that often there are synthetic materials being burned that produce compounds that can be dangerous like hydrogen cyanide,” said Dr. Bruce Kornreich, director of the Cornell Feline Health Center in Ithaca, N.Y.

“Carbon monoxide can also get into the bloodstream, and those two interfere with the delivery of oxygen to organs,” Kornreich added. “In some cases, these fires can also produce chemical irritants. So the chemicals can actually trigger inflammation in the airways.”

Additionally, use air purifiers or filters to improve air quality inside.

When keeping pets indoors, activities for them can be important, Bell said.

“There’s lots of puzzle games that dogs and cats can do,” she said. “Fill the puzzles (with) their treats or their dog food and hide it in the house. They have to hunt for them or have to roll them around or they knock all the kibbles out.”

Also ensure pets have access to clean water both indoors and outdoors so it’s not tainted with smoke, Bell added.

Monitor animals’ symptoms

Be on the lookout for any signs of respiratory distress or discomfort in your pets such as coughing, sneezing, wheezing or trouble breathing.

Pay attention to any changes to their normal behaviour, such as wanting to play fetch for 10 minutes instead of an hour as usual, Bell said. “That decrease in activity — we just have to pay attention to (it) and not force them to be active when their body says not to be.”

Indoor cats should be monitored for these same symptoms, she added.

“If you notice any concerning symptoms, seek prompt veterinary care,” Fadl said.

Consult with a veterinarian

Reach out to a trusted veterinarian for expert guidance catered to your pet’s needs. Vets can also recommend appropriate preventive measures or treatments.

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